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A.        Papacy and Church in the Middle Ages

The so-called Middle Ages cannot be understood apart from the one dominating principle that gave it shape, namely, the unitary authority of the papacy over both church and state. The middle ages are known first and foremost for the emergence of a truly imperial papacy.

The ascendancy of the bishop of Rome to universal religious, and eventually political, authority was a gradual process. Ignatius (a.d. 110) and Clement (a.d. 100), through their affirmation, respectively, of the doctrines of the monarchical bishop and apostolic succession, tilled the soil in which the seeds of papal authority were to be sown. The latter work may largely be ascribed to the efforts of Irenaeus (a.d. 125-200) and especially Cyprian (200-58). It was not until Gregory (590), however, that the full blossom of Roman dominance emerged.

Be it noted, however, that papal supremacy was not entirely absolute in these early years of the medieval period, as evidenced by the fact that the election of every new pope had to be confirmed by and gain formal approval from the emperor or his exarch.

1.         Gregory the Great (540-604;his papal reign extended from 590 to 604)

Gregory was the first pope to also have been a monk. He initially was angered over having been forced to leave the contemplative life for church office, having been appointed by Pope Pelagius II as episcopal representative in Constantinople. Yet he was highly educated and well-equipped in every way to govern the church of Rome. He refused the title Pope, preferring to be called Servant of the servants of God, and was instrumental in organizing the distribution of food to the needy. He firmly rejected the Byzantine claim of equality between the patriarchs of that city (i.e., Constantinople) and Rome. As bishop of Rome he successfully promoted its absolute superiority and primacy over all others. It was under his reign that Rome gained final recognition over Constantinople as the seat of religious authority as he greatly increased both the wealth and influence of the papacy.

Gregory was not an especially gifted theologian, but he did serve to solidify several important doctrines in the church. He was orthodox in his doctrine of Christ and the Trinity and has been classified Semi-Pelagian by some, Semi-Augustinian by others. His principal contribution was in regard to the Eucharist as a true sacrifice of Christ. He writes:

"For as often as we offer him the hostia of the passion, so often do we renew his passion to ourselves for our absolution."

"Living in himself immortally and incorruptibly, he is for us again immolated in this mystery of sacred oblation. For there his body is taken, his flesh is broken for the salvation of the people, his blood is poured out, not now into the hands of unbelievers, but into the mouths of believers. Hence we consider what is the nature of this sacrifice for us, which always repeats for our absolution the passion of the Only-begotten."

Gregory also strongly affirmed and advanced the doctrine of Purgatory. Although the Christian mission to England was begun by Irish monks, Gregory (who sent Augustine of Canterbury to England in 596) is generally regarded as “the first pope . . . who consciously and out of his own initiative sent missionaries to areas that lay outside of the traditional ecumene” (Schimmelpfennig, 75). Gregory’s book, Pastoral Care, became a standard text for medieval bishops on the subject of shepherding souls.

2.         Forgery and the Power of the Papacy

Two documents, both forgeries, greatly enhanced the power of the papacy during this period.

a.         The Donation of Constantine (the Constitutum Constantini)

This document (which contains little, if any, historical fact), allegedly written by Constantine in the 4th century, dates from the middle of the 8th century. In it he claims to have been healed of leprosy (with which he had been inflicted for oppressing God’s people) by Pope Sylvester, in gratitude for which he declared that the church at Rome and its bishop were to have supreme religious authority. He also is reported to have granted the church extensive territory in the western region of the empire, subsequent to which he withdrew to Constantinople so as not to interfere with the imperial rights of the Pope. The more significant of the privileges allegedly bestowed on the papacy included,

“the imperial Lateran Palace in Rome (where Constantine was supposedly baptized), sovereignty over the city of Rome, the provinces, cities and towns of the whole of Italy and the West; and most of all, supreme authority over all churches in the world, including the chairs of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople. The Donation was, in effect, a sweeping bow to the authority of the papacy, in realms both sacred and secular” (Williams, 109).

There are five parts to the donation: (1) Creed – Constantine’s confession of faith, designed to dispel the belief that his conversion was spurious. (2) Cure – Having contracted leprosy, Constantine first consults pagan priests in Rome who tell him he may be cured by bathing in the blood of slaughtered children. When he refused, Peter and Paul appear to him in a dream, telling him to seek a cure from the pope. At his baptism, he sees a hand descending from heaven; it touches him and he is cured. (3) Spiritual supremacy – The church in Rome is granted supremacy over all churches on earth. (4) Temporal supremacy – To signify the pope’s temporal supremacy Constantine bestowed on him the imperial insignia and held the reins as he walked beside Sylvester’s horse (a symbol of vassalage). (5) Limits of supremacy – Constantine limited the pope’s temporal supremacy to “Rome, and all the sectors of Italy and western lands, their territory and cities.” Constantine himself retained power over the eastern half of the kingdom.

Lorenzo Valla (1407-57) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) exposed the document as a forgery, but not until long after it had been used as the basis on which the papacy gained extensive territorial holdings.

Note: Williams (Retrieving the Tradition) argues that the influence of this document on the perspective of the Reformers was profound. Notwithstanding the exposure of the Donation as fraudulent, says Williams, “permanent historical ‘damage’ had been done: the reactionary basis of many reform movements was built upon an image of post-Constantinian Christianity that had been partly or largely informed by a distorted view of the fourth century and beyond. A dividing line was drawn between the true apostolic faith and the false hierarchy that had arisen as a later mutation, between the church of Jesus Christ and the one forged from the human power and traditions incarnated as the Roman institution. Such an image only served to exacerbate the abuses of ecclesiastical power and practices which were truly present in the medieval church and required reform” (111). Thus, Williams contends that much of value in the late patristic era (4th and 5th centuries) was discredited in the eyes of many by this misguided paradigm of church history.

b.         The Isidorian Decretals

These decretals/decisions were allegedly collected by Isidore of Seville, head of the Spanish church during the early 7th century. This document consisted of papal decisions and councils from Clement of Rome (1st c.) to Gregory II (8th c.). Bishops, according to this document, could appeal directly to the pope, and were not subject to the control of any secular authority. This document attempted to prove that the authority claimed by the papacy in the middle ages was simply an extension of a power existent from the founding of the church. Nicholas of Cusa was responsible for exposing these decretals as fake.

Together, however, these documents were successfully used as legal justification for the territorial and ecclesiastical expansion of the Roman Catholic Church.

B.        Territorial Gains and Losses of Christianity

"The sword is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of Allah, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven, and at the day of judgment his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim" (Mohammed / 570-632).

Following the death of Mohammed (632), Islam began its movement beyond the Arabian peninsula into previously Christian territory. The weakening of the Roman empire by the barbarian invasion from the north, as well as the spiritual degeneracy of the church at large, made the Islamic conquests relatively simple. Syria and Palestine were overrun in the latter half of the 7th century and the Mosque of Omar was built in Jerusalem. Egypt fell in the late 7th century and Persia came under Islamic control by 650. Although Mohammed had only a few hundred followers at the time of his death, within 75 years Islam threatened to overtake virtually all of Asia, Europe, and North Africa! Islam spread into North Africa and eventually crossed the straits of Gibraltar into Spain (711-18). Crossing the Pyrennes, they sought to penetrate France.

In 732, one of the most important battles in history was fought. Charles Martel (Martel = the Hammer), the Frankish commander, defeated the Islamic forces on the plain of Tours. The once heathen tribe of German Franks, whose king, Clovis, had converted to Christ in 496, preserved Europe for Christianity. Perhaps of equal importance, but rarely noted, was the success of Leo III in repulsing the Arab attempt to capture Constantinople in 717-18.

There were considerable gains for the church.

·      The British Isles: (a) Ireland (Patrick; d. late 5th c.); (b) England (Aidan and Augustin).

·      Germany (Boniface; b. 680)

·      The Netherlands (Willibrord; early 8th c.)

·      Scandanavia: (a) Denmark (initial missionary efforts by Ansgar [801-65]; they adopted Christianity in 1020 under the influence of King Canute the Great); (b) both Norway and Sweden adopted the faith in @ 1000.

Pope Honorius (625-638) was condemned as a heretic for embracing the doctrine known as Monothelitism (the belief that there was only one will in Christ. Whatever else may be intended by the concept of papal infallibility, it must reckon with the potential for a pope to fall into theological heresy.

C.        Charlemagne and the Marriage of Church and State

Charlemagne (742-814) marked the revival of the Roman empire and the marriage of church and state. He was 7ft tall, had long white hair, was well-educated and extremely dignified. On Christmas day, 800, he was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. “For Rome, this meant that, for the next three hundred years, the emperor would be overlord of Roman territory and, with that, of the pope” (Schimmelpfennig, 88).

There was a cultural revival under Charlemagne known to history as the Carolingian Renaissance. Tremendous educational and cultural advances were achieved under the direction of Alcuin (735-804), a scholar whom Charlemagne imported from England. "From the palace school at the royal court a generation of Alcuin's students went out to head monastic and cathedral schools throughout the Empire which Charlemagne created. Even though this Empire barely outlived its founder, the revival of education and religion associated with Alcuin and Charlemagne brightened European culture throughout the bleak and chaotic period that followed" (Harry Rosenberg in The History of Christianity, 240).

The principal issue that emerged with the renewed power of the empire under Charlemagne is articulated by Cairns:

"Was the emperor given power from God over men, and did the pope exercise delegated power from the emperor over men's souls, or did God give supreme authority to the Church, and did the pope delegate authority over men's bodies to the emperor, or did they hold coordinate positions in which God gave to each one directly supremacy within his respective sphere? The answer to this problem occupied the energies of popes and emperors during the Middle Ages until the popes finally succeeded in bringing the emperor under their control" (200-01).

The Carolingian empire, revived under Charlemagne, was short-lived. Contributing to its dissolution were three factors:

1)         The weaknesses of Charlemagne's successors -

2)         The invasion of the Norsemen (from what is modern day Sweden, Denmark, Norway) -

3)         The rise of feudalism (decentralization) - virtually every country of western Europe was broken up into a large number of small principalities ruled over by nobles, who in turn divided their estates among lesser nobles, who in turn granted sections of land to lesser tenants called vassals. In sum, there were no countries unified under a strong central government. Hence it came as no surprise that the Norse invaders had comparatively easy going in their conquests.

The dissolution of the Roman Empire was final. Indeed, the two centuries following Charlemagne's death were the darkest of the Dark Ages. Political disorder and the demoralization of the papacy reached their zenith during this time.

The approximately 250 years from the time of Charlemagne to Gregory VII are not the most notable in the history of the Roman papacy. “The period was marred by papal corruption (including simony, i.e., the buying and selling of church offices, nepotism, lavish lifestyles, concubinage, brutality, even murder) and the domination of the papacy by German kings and by powerful Roman aristocratic families” (Richard McBrien, Lives of the Popes [San Francisco: Harper, 1997], 127). During this period no fewer than seven popes were assassinated (one, John VIII, was first poisoned and then clubbed to death) and one (Sergius III, 904-11) actually ordered the murder of his predecessor (Leo V). John XII (955-64) was the first teenager elected pope (at the age of 18). He died of a stroke while in bed with a married woman!

Beginning with the papacy of Leo VI (928), Marozia, daughter of an influential civilian, began to exercise considerable influence over the Vatican. As a teenager she had an affair with Pope Sergius III. Their child became Pope John XI. She had Pope John X murdered for trying to escape her family’s control.

Another infamous incident concerns the bishop Formosus, who became pope in 891 (it was uncommon for a bishop to be elected pope, for they were considered married to their home church). At the so-called “Cadaver Synod” of 896-97, Stephen VI ordered the partially decomposed body of Formosus, clothed in papal vestments, be mutilated and then thrown into the Tiber! A few months later, Stephen was himself imprisoned and then strangled. Somehow the body of Formosus was retrieved and honored as a relic with miraculous powers.

It wasn’t until the end of the tenth century that canonization came under the firm control of the papacy. Until then, worship of a saint was a local matter. In 993, for the first time, a pope (John XV) decreed that a saint was to be honored throughout the entire church.

D.        The Causes and Course of the East-West Split

1)         In 330 Constantine moved the capital of his empire to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul in Turkey). This was the first step in a geographical, cultural and political split.

2)         The barbarian invasions in the late fifth century hastened the demise of the political prestige of Rome and somewhat severed the unity once enjoyed by the citizens of east and west. “During the late sixth and the seventh centuries, east and west were further isolated from each other by the Avar and Slav invasions of the Balkan peninsula; Illyricum, which used to serve as a bridge, became in this way a barrier between Byzantium and the Latin world” (TOC, 45).

3)         By the end of the sixth century, neither group could speak the other's language. Latin was the language of Rome and the west while Greek was the language of Constantinople and the east. “Because they no longer drew upon the same sources nor read the same books, Greek east and Latin west drifted more and more apart” (TOC, 46).

4)         The expansion of Isalm in the east severed Byzantine Christians and their capital at Constantinople from their counterparts in the west.

5)         Ignoring the protests of the Greek east, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the west on Christmas day in the year 800. The east refused to recognize him as emperor.

6)         The east allowed some of its clergy to marry while the west required celibacy. [Today, the so-called “white” clergy are allowed to marry while the “black” or monastic clergy do not. Orthodoxy does not believe in the ordination of women to the priesthood.]

7)         In the east the local parish priest could administer the sacrament of confirmation but in the west only the bishop could.

8)         In the west the Catholics mixed the eucharistic wine with water while the east did not.

9)         The west used unleavened bread (azymes); the east used leavened bread.

10)       Other disputes over such matters as clerical beards, the tonsure (shaving of a portion of the head before admission to the priesthood), and fasting also served to divide them.

11)       The east encouraged active lay involvement in theology while in the west it was largely restricted to the clergy.

12)       Ware summarizes several other points of theology that served to divide east from west:

“At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on” (TOC, 48).

13)       The eastern church acknowledged that the pope deserved primacy of honor, but they insisted he was only a first among equals and that an ecumenical council rather than a papal decree was to be regarded as final authority (see esp. the comments of Nicetas on p. 50 of Ware, TOC). The Orthodox Church, notes Ware,

“does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honour, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom. . . . Rome’s mistake – so Orthodox believe – has been to turn this primacy or ‘presidency of love’ into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction” (TOC, 27).

This crucial issue revealed itself in three events that contributed greatly to the split.

·      In 858 a man named Photius was appointed to be the new patriarch at Constantinople, replacing Ignatius who had been exiled (for criticizing the Byzantine emperor's private life) and later resigned. The followers of Ignatius refused to acknowledge the transition of power. Both sides appealed to Pope Nicholas I (858-67) in Rome. Nicholas decided to reinstate Ignatius and depose Photius. As Clendenin explains, "from the perspective of Orthodox Christians in the East, Nicholas's decision was yet another example of the proverbial camel's nose in the tent, an infringement of their own autonomy. Moreover, in a letter in 865 Nicholas declared that he sought to extend the power of the papacy 'over all the earth, that is, over every church.' Eastern Christians would hear nothing of it" (Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994], 42).

·      The filioque debate . . . See below.

David Bell explains the difference between east and west on this issue by means of several illustrations:

“For the Greeks [the east], the procession of the Holy Spirit can be likened to the distribution of electricity from power station to the outlet in the wall. The Father is the power station; the grid-system is the Son; and the outlet is the Holy Spirit. In other words, our immediate contact-point with God is the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Son is the channel by which the Holy Spirit is transmitted to us. Another analogy is the distribution of water from reservoir to tap: the reservoir is the Father; the pipes linking the reservoir to the tap represent the Son; the tap itself is the Holy Spirit. This view is referred to as single procession, since the Father is the one single source of the Spirit. The view of Augustine of Hippo was radically different from this, and it was Augustine’s view that came to be accepted by the latin west. To understand this idea, we might imagine an electric battery – a car battery, for example – which has two terminals, one positive and one negative. If you join the terminals together, a current flows between them and the battery is in operation. In this analogy, we can regard Father and Son as the two terminals of the battery and the Holy Spirit as the current flowing between them. The Holy Spirit is here defined as the interaction of Father and Son, and just as both terminals are essential if the battery is to operate, so both Father and Son are essential in the production of the Holy Spirit. Interaction requires two persons: you cannot interact with yourself. For Augustine, therefore, the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Father through the Son, but from the Father and the Son, and this is referred to as double procession” (Many Mansions, 194).

·      Early in the 11th century, the Patriarch of Constantinople omitted the name of the Pope from the Diptychs, the list of the names of the other patriarchs whom he regards as orthodox (most likely because of the filioque dispute). “The Diptychs are a visible sign of the unity of the Church, and deliberately to omit a person’s name from them is tantamount to a declaration that one is not in communion with him” (TOC, 57).

After centuries of squabbling and mutual recriminations, Pope Leo IX sent his legate, Cardinal Humbert, to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. On June 16, 1054, Humbert (not a particularly compassionate or cordial man!) delivered the papal bull of excommunication that anathematized the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius. As he departed, he shook the dust from his feet and declared: “Let God look and judge.” Michael, as one might expect, reciprocated. According to Bell, “Humbert had excommunicated the eastern patriarch, not the eastern church; Michael had excommunicated Humbert, not the papacy. In other words, the mutual excommunications were personal rather than institutional, and over the next few years they were gradually forgotten. Far more serious were the disastrous effects of the Crusades” (David N. Bell, Many Mansions [Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1996], 55).

The final blow came in 1204 when western troops on their way to Egypt in the Fourth Crusade took a detour through Constantinople. They had been invited to Constantinople by Alexius, son of the emperor, ostensibly to restore the latter to the power from which he had been deposed. Alexius failed to live up to his end of the bargain, principally his promise to reward them financially. They stormed the city and ransacked the Church of the Holy Wisdom, regarded as an act of inexcusable desecration by eastern Christians (French prostitutes who had accompanied the soldiers caroused in the church, one of whom sat defiantly on the throne of the patriarch). For three days they burned libraries, ransacked, pillaged, desecrated and destroyed every artifact and building associated with the Orthodox church. They raped and killed and left Constantinople in ruins. It never recovered, and the breach was final.

One of the principal causes of the split was the issue of the filioque.

The east accused the western church of heresy when they, following the theology of Augustine, inserted the term filioque ("and the Son") into the Nicene Creed. In its original form, the creed affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeded "from the Father." At some later time (no one knows for sure when or how or by whom, but most likely it originated in Spain) the word filioque was added to affirm that the Spirit also proceeded "from the Son." [They believed this reinforced the Deity of the Son against Arian threats.] It was ratified at the Council of Toledo in 589 and spread rapidly into France, Germany, and was eventually endorsed by Charlemagne. Orthodox believers regarded this as a violation of the finality and authority of the early ecumenical councils and the wisdom of the Fathers. They also regarded it as theologically untrue and a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity.

E.         The Crusades

In brief, the Crusades were an attempt to recapture, by military force and in the name of Christ, the Holy Land from its Islamic settlers. There were, in fact, perhaps hundreds of crusades varying in size and influence. We are concerned only with the more significant ones. There were several causes for the Crusades:

·      Economic - overpopulation and famine in Europe forced many to flee oppressive conditions and seek a better life through the conquest and plundering of another land.

·      Religious - a sincere desire to retake the Holy Land; the Pope offered plenary indulgences and even eternal life to participants; i.e., forgiveness of sins, reduced time in purgatory, etc.

·      Political - Alexius, emperor at Constantinople, appealed for help against Moslems who were threatening his kingdom. It was thought that perhaps retaking the Holy Land and defending Constantinople might contribute to the reconciliation of the East-West schism.

·      Miscellaneous - some were looking for military adventure; some sought escape from domestic boredom; criminals saw it as the only alternative to punishment (many were offered pardon in return for military service).

The more significant Crusades include:

The First Crusade (1096-99) / main preacher was Peter the Hermit / crusaders captured Nicea, Antioch, Edessa, Jerusalem

The Third Crusade (1189-92) / Richard the Lionhearted participated / disastrous results

The Children’s Crusade (1212) / a 12 year-old boy, Stephen, rallied @ 25,000 children under the age of 12 / they believed that their child-like innocence and purity of heart would guarantee their safety / most either drowned at sea, were sold into slavery, or were killed in battle 

In brief, writes Schaff, "the Crusades failed in three respects. The Holy Land was not won. The advance of Islam was not permanently checked. The schism between the East and the West was not healed" (V:290).

The Crusades are important for the development of one aspect of Catholic theology. Pope Urban offered an indulgence for those going on the crusade. His intent was to grant the remission of penitential acts imposed by the church in this life. But overzealous preachers of the crusades extended the indulgence to cover all sufferings in purgatory in the afterlife. Wills explains:

“Once people acted on this understanding, it became impossible to back off from it, and theologians had to come up with a justification for this new papal power. What gave the pope authority to dispose of people’s souls even in the afterlife? Peter Abelard said that no such justification could be found; and it was not until the next century that Hugh of Saint-Cher came up with a notion that became the official rationale – that the church has a ‘treasury of merit’ earned by Christ and the saints, which can be drawn on to pay out to others” (Why I Am A Catholic, 134).

F.         Revival of Power and Prestige in the Papacy (1073-1305)

Following almost two centuries of political chaos and religious corruption, the Roman Catholic Church experienced a renewed surge of power. Two men in particular contributed to this development.

1.         Hildebrand or Gregory VII

Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073 and immediately sought to purify the church from such practices as simony and clerical immorality. He was determined that no civil power would dominate the church and thus abolished the practice of lay investiture (according to which feudal lords, i.e., lay, civil leaders and nobles, bestowed to the local clergy the symbols of their office; as long as emperors and other secular rulers could appoint whomever they desired to church office, the authority of Rome over the people was severely restricted).

The emperor at this time, Henry IV, violated Gregory's decree against lay investiture by appointing three bishops to office. He then convened a synod of twenty-six German bishops at Worms where he promptly deposed the pope. Gregory in turn excommunicated Henry and released all his subjects from allegiance to him. Faced with losing his throne, Henry crossed the Alps in the winter of 1077 and stood in the snow for 3 days outside the papal palace at Canossa in northern Italy, pleading that Gregory release him from the sentence of excommunication. There was incredible symbolic importance to this event, as the Emperor was seen bowing to the authority of the Pope.

Although Henry later gained his revenge by invading Italy and deposing Gregory, the ultimate outcome of the conflict was in the church's favor. Gregory died in exile in 1085, a broken man, but he had succeeded in securing recognition for the papacy as independent of imperial authority.

2.         Innocent III (1161-1216)

The medieval papacy reached its zenith of power and prestige when Innocent was elected pope in 1198. Schaff asserts that Innocent's tenure in office

"marks the golden age of the medieval papacy and one of the most important eras in the history of the Catholic Church. No other mortal has before or since wielded such extensive power. As the spiritual sovereign of Latin Christendom, he had no rival. At the same time he was the acknowledged arbiter of the political destinies of Europe from Constantinople to Scotland. He successfully carried into execution the highest theory of the papal theocracy and anticipated the Vatican dogmas of papal absolutism and infallibility. To the title vicar of Christ, Innocent added for the first time the title vicar of God. He set aside the decisions of bishops and provincial councils, and lifted up and cast down kings. He summoned and guided one of the most important of the councils of the Western Church, the Fourth Lateran, 1215, whose acts established the Inquisition and fixed transubstantiation as a dogma. He set on foot the Fourth Crusade, and died making preparation for another" (V:152).

All temporal rulers derived their power from Pope Innocent. He claimed authority over not only the church but the entire earth (calling himself arbiter mundi, arbiter of the world)! “Princes have power in earth, priests over the soul. As much as the soul is worthier than the body, so much worthier is the priesthood than the monarchy” (quoted by McBrien, 209). He used the Interdict with a vengeance (an interdict prohibited the clergy from performing any but the most essential services of the church; in other words, all the sacraments of the church were declared forbidden and thus "the doors to the kingdom of heaven were locked shut").

One after another the emperor, kings, lords and princes of Europe acknowledged the Pope as spiritual lord and most bowed to him as feudal and temporal lord as well. They declared themselves to be his vassals and held their kingdoms as fiefs of the church.

The closing and climactic accomplishment of Innocent's reign was the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, otherwise known as the Twelfth Ecumenical Council (only months after which Innocent died). It marks the height of papal theocracy. In attendance were 412 bishops, 800 abbots and priors, and representatives of the emperor, Frederick II the emperor Henry of Constantinople, and the kings of England, France, Hungary, and other heads of state. The council's two most important declarations were the authorization of the Inquisition as a means of dealing with heretics and the dogma of Transubstantiation:

"The body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power. . . . And this sacrament no one can in any case administer except a priest who has been properly ordained."

It was in canon 21 of this council that the formula “I absolve you of your sins” first came into use and solidified the practice of the confessional.

G.        Papal decline under Boniface VIII (1294-1303)

The 16 popes who ruled from Innocent (1215) to Boniface (1294) were largely successful in maintaining the temporal power of the papacy. Rapid decline began with the rule of Boniface VIII (1294-1303).

It was Boniface who issued the papal bull, Unam sanctam, in which he asserted "extra ecclesiam non salus est" (outside the church there is no salvation). He also claimed that salvation requires subjection to the papacy. Among other declarations were: “if the earthly power err, it shall be judged by the spiritual power. . . . But if the supreme power err, it can only be judged by God, not by man;” and “of this one and only Church there is one body and one head – not two heads, like a monster – namely Christ, and Christ’s vicar is Peter, and Peter’s successor.”

Following a conflict between Boniface and King Philip of France over taxation of the clergy and other issues, Boniface was deposed. Clement V became pope after Boniface died and immediately came under Philip's control. Indeed, Philip moved the papal seat from Rome to Avignon in France in 1309, inaugurating what has come to be known as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1309-77). During this time the papacy was the virtual pawn of the French monarchs and lost all semblance of the power it had achieved under Innocent. Still, the popes of Avignon lived in unmistakable extravagance. The Italian humanist Petrarch referred to Avignon as "the sink of every vice, the haunt of all iniquities."

It wasn't until Pope Gregory XI, with the help of St. Catherine of Siena, that the papal seat was returned to Rome, thereby ending the Babylonian Captivity. The problems for the Roman papacy, however, were far from over.

H.        The Great Schism (1378-1417) 

After Gregory's death, Urban VI was elected pope, but soon incurred the displeasure of the College of Cardinals in France (the story is that he was insane). The latter body elected another pope, Clement VII, who hastily retreated to . . . where else, but Avignon! Now there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon (Urban was known to have tortured and murdered several cardinals in Rome who opposed him)! This is known as The Great Schism. [There is to this day disagreement among RC scholars over who was in fact the official successor to Peter during this period.] After mutual denunciations and excommunications, the council of Pisa in 1409 deposed both popes and elected Alexander V. But neither of the deposed popes would leave office . . . so then there were three!! Finally, the Council of Constance in 1417 elected another pope (!), Martin V. The other three, weary of the conflict, resigned and gave Martin their support. Once again the church in western Europe had a unified leadership and the Great Schism was ended.

The Roman Popes                  The Avignon Popes                The Conciliar Popes

Urban VI (1378-89)                Clement VII (1378-94)          

Boniface IX (1389-1404)        Benedict XIII (1394-1417)     Alexander V (1409-10)

Innocent VII (1404-06)                                                           John XXIII (1410-15)

Gregory XII (1406-15)                                                           Martin V (1417-31)

I.          Efforts at Medieval Reform

From the 12th to the 15th centuries there were numerous efforts to reform and purify the church, the most significant of which are listed below.

1.         Monastic Reform

2.         Lay reform movements and other dissenting groups

3.         The Mystics

4.         Forerunners of the Reformation

a.         John Wycliffe (1328-1384) - Called The Morningstar of the Reformation, professor at Oxford, he was turned against Rome by the Babylonian Captivity and Great Schism. He opposed the papacy (calling the pope "Antichrist" and "vicar of the fiend"), denied transubstantiation, embraced an Augustinian view of predestination and divine monergism in salvation, affirmed the authority of Scripture over the church, and insisted that Christ alone, not the pope, is head of the church. Like the Protestant Reformers later, “Wycliffe rejected the necessity of an authoritative magisterium, or teaching and interpreting office of the church. The Bible as God’s inspired Word takes the place of such an office and stands over all ecclesiastical agencies” (Olson, 360).

By 1382 he had completed the first English translation of the NT, followed in 1384 by the OT. He created a society known as the Poor Preachers, men who renounced worldly possessions, and dispatched them throughout England to preach the gospel. Although condemned in 1382, his views were perpetuated by the Lollards (this word originated in Holland and meant "mumblers", someone who does not talk straight and is thus a heretic). He died of a stroke in on Dec. 31st, 1384, while leading worship. He was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1415. In 1428 his body was exhumed, burned, and the ashes scattered in the River Swift by the bishop of Lincoln.

b.         John Hus (1369-1415) - Wycliffe's views came to Bohemia (Hus' country) via students who had gone to England for their education. When Hus sought to implement Wycliffe's agenda he was excommunicated and eventually summoned to the Council of Constance in 1415 under promise of protection from the emperor. He was imprisoned while there (7 months) and eventually was burned at the stake.

Before the flames were lit he was given a chance to recant to which he replied: "I shall die with joy today in the faith of the Gospel which I have preached." As the flames grew more intense he sang: "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." To eliminate all possibility of people preserving relics from the scene, his clothes and shoes were also thrown into the flames and all ashes cast into the Rhine river.

When Martin Luther undertook reform in the 16th century he was initially accused of resurrecting the views of John Hus, to which he boldly replied on behalf of himself and his followers: "We are all Hussites!"

c.         Savonarola (1452-1498) - He was a Dominican monk in Florence. Though not as theologically advanced as Wycliffe or Hus, he fought for reform within the church. According to Thompson, "he was neither attractive to look at nor easy to listen to. His clothes were patched, and his speech was as hard as steel. His gestures were neither smooth nor civilized; his green eyes blazed fiercely; his body was spindly, his nose, hooked; he was neither pretty nor winsome" (Humanists and Reformers: A History of the Renaissance and Reformation, 192). He was committed to the medieval values of poverty, asceticism, fasting, contempt of the world, and anticipation of heaven. He was not at all enamored by the so-called cultural renaissance of classical antiquity: "Plato, Aristotle, and the other philosophers are fast in hell," thundered Savonarola. "Any old woman knows more about the faith than Plato!" He reserved his most vehement denunciations for the papacy, leading to his excommunication on May 12, 1497. He was eventually arrested, severely tortured, and hung, his body then burned lest any relic remain to be venerated.

5.         The Reforming Councils or the Conciliar movement

The Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism together convinced many that the church should be governed by representative councils and not the arbitrary authority of the pope. Conciliarism was a genuine threat to the papacy inasmuch as it vested ultimate power in the cardinals and thus, indirectly, in the secular powers that supported them.

a.         The Council of Pisa (1409)

b.         The Council of Constance (1414-18) - It passed the decree called Sacrosancta which read: "The holy Council of Constance declares that it is a General Council and that therefore it has its authority immediately from Christ; and that all men of every rank and condition, including the Pope himself, is bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith, the abolition of the schism, and the reformation of the Church of God in its head and its members." The council imposed on the pope and his successors the obligation to regularly call councils, the first in five years, the second in seven, and one every ten years thereafter. 

c.         The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438) - At this council the supreme authority of the pope was reasserted. Had the conciliar movement succeeded, the RCC would have been transformed into a constitutional monarchy led by a pope appointed by a council, and the absolute papacy of the medieval church would have disappeared. But the movement died and the papal despotism of the past revived when Pope Pius II (1458-64) issued a bull (Execrabilis) in 1460 condemning any appeal to future councils.

Conciliarism died primarily due to lack of temporal support. The popes were able to convince the secular rulers that if an ecclesiastical council had the power to depose a pope, it could do likewise to a civil ruler.